Forgotten in plain sight: bringing renewed attention to a famous New York City waterway
A boat ride on Newtown Creek in New York reveals the story of a polluted past. On either side are industrial yards and oil refineries, in front of you is Manhattan’s iconic skyline, and below is one of the most contaminated waterways in the United States. Newtown Creek is a 3.5 mile estuary and a long tributary of the East River that forms part of the border between the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens.
What was once a freshwater stream fed by a watercourse became a dumping ground for industrial byproducts and toxins in the 19th and 20th centuries, perhaps most famous for an oil spill in 1950 that did not ‘was only discovered in the late 1970s. This disaster released between 17 and 30 million gallons of oil and petroleum products into the soil and stream. Today, organizations like the Newtown Creek Alliance are working on projects to clean up, restore and revitalize the historic waterway. Already blue crabs and fish have returned to the waters, and wetland plants are invading the abandoned sediment piles along the creek banks.
Newtown Creek and its history of recovery is the subject of the latest creative project by Dana Spiotta, author and associate professor of English at the College of Arts and Sciences. Spiotta collaborates with the composer Kurt rohde and artist Marie Lorenz produce a floating performance addressing the topics of climate change, environmental justice and civic responsibility. Spiotta and her colleagues recently received a Creative Capital Prize to finance their project. Creative Capital is a non-profit organization that supports innovative and adventurous artists across the country through funding, advice, gatherings, and career development services. Their project is one of 35 of more than 4,000 submissions nationwide to be shortlisted for the award, which provides $ 50,000 for work on their project.
According to Spiotta, “Newtown Odyssey” presents a non-traditional opera heard amid the sounds of surrounding traffic and industry. Performers sing on moving and floating stages, and the audience will pass by in boats, physically connecting them to the themes of the opera.
“Newtown Creek is one of the most polluted waterways in New York City, but somehow still quite beautiful,” says Spiotta. “We are interested in what is forgotten in plain sight in a city. In putting on a live show, we ask ourselves who has access to our waterways and for what. We’re all interested in secret stories, and we see this waterway as a city-evocative palimpsest, where every layer of the stream’s past tells a story.
For Spiotta and Lorenz, this is not the first time they have creatively explored a “forgotten waterway”. The couple had previously embarked on an adventure where they had traveled along part of the Erie Canal using a rowboat. Spiotta wrote about this experience in New York Times Magazine and Lorenz documented it for his art project, The Tide and Current Taxi.
For the production of “Newtown Odyssey,“ Spiotta will write the story, the libretto (text of the opera) and the story; Rohde will compose the score and Lorenz will direct and design the show.
With the project in its early stages, Spiotta expects “Newtown Odyssey” to host its first live audience in 2022. She hopes those who attend the show will walk away with an appreciation for resilience. and the beauty of Newtown Creek despite centuries of industrial contamination. , and a motivation to engage in efforts for a cleaner future.